Aging workers

Keeping aging workers safe

Employers and researchers explore strategies

Aging worker
Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation

The proportion of older workers in the United States continues to rise, prompting safety professionals and researchers to strategize about the best ways to accommodate them.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, in 2010, 19 percent of workers were 55 and older. U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015 put that number at 22.6 percent. By 2024, BLS estimates, 24.8 percent of the workforce will be made up of older workers.

Why the influx of older workers? Jim Grosch, a research psychologist and co-director of the NIOSH Center for Productive Aging and Work, cites both a rise in life expectancy and financial issues. “Just the demographics of the aging population,” Grosch said. “There are more and more people who are still working over the age of 55, and also, just related to that is a change in pensions. … Not everybody puts away as much as they could, so the pensions tend to be less generous. People don’t have quite the financial resources.”

A 2012 study from the Center for Construction Research and Training – also known as CPWR – found that older construction workers may be hesitant to shift to less physically demanding work, given the risk of reduced income or reduced access to health and pension benefits.

Added value … and risk

Maryland Transportation Administration construction director Dave Ferrara, 54, praises the “institutional knowledge” of his team’s older members. Construction workers realize they are in a profession in which roles often change as physical skills diminish, Ferrara said. Expectations may shift, but an emphasis on safety remains a priority.

If an older MTA worker lacks the strength or stamina to climb a bridge suspension tower as part of a job, for instance, the worker would be assigned to what Ferrara called “less demanding” work.

“I think they definitely work smarter,” he said. “I think you don’t see them getting injured as often as the younger worker. But when they do get injured – and we don’t have real major injuries – it definitely takes longer for things to heal.”

Injury concerns

Data from the 2014 Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses backs up Ferrara’s latter claim. Among construction workers, median days away from work averaged 20 for the 45-54 age group, 21 for workers 55 to 64 years old and 37 for those 65 and older. For all industries, the median days away for those age groups were 12, 15 and 17, respectively. In contrast, the median for all ages was 10 missed days among construction workers and nine days for all industries.

“That’s just the physical changes that occur that make physical rehabilitation more difficult,” Grosch said.

Additional 2014 survey data shows that employees ages 45 to 54 experienced musculoskeletal disorders at a rate of about 40 per 10,000 full-time workers – the highest among all demographics. Older workers also experienced trunk, back, shoulder and knee injuries more often than younger workers, who were more likely to have head and hand injuries.

Further, the 2014 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries data shows that the risk of fatal falls across all industries increases with age. Workers ages 20 to 24 years old accounted for 8.2 percent of fatal falls in 2014, with the rate climbing for each ensuing age group:

  • 45-54: 16.8 percent
  • 55-64: 20.7 percent
  • 65 and older: 27.3 percent

“We talk about increased vulnerability that comes as one gets older, and physical demands become difficult to cope with. … If you fall, for instance, and you’re younger, you may just have faster reflexes,” Grosch said. “Whereas if you’re older, you may be slower with that, and it may be to the point where you may not be able to break your fall quick enough to keep an injury from happening.”

A moving model

What can employers do to accommodate the aging workforce? Grosch points to a 2010 pilot project from German automaker BMW as “one of the few well-documented cases” of a successful aging worker integration strategy. Numerous, small-scale changes at an assembly plant in Dingolfing, Germany, helped create a productive operation – as well as important guidance amid changing demographics.

In an email to Safety+Health, Fabian Sting, Ph.D., co-author of a Harvard Business Review article detailing the strategy, wrote that “the most effective part of this initiative was the involvement effect.”

BMW says it made 70 small changes, many ergonomics-based, and saw productivity increase by 7 percent in one year. Plant officials began by reorganizing staff so the average worker age was 47, its year 2017 projection in 2010. They then asked workers for input about how to create a more accommodating work environment.

Changes included installing wooden flooring to reduce knee strain and static electricity exposure; providing orthopedic footwear to reduce foot strain; using angled monitors, magnifying lenses and larger computer screen typeface to reduce eyestrain; and using manual hoisting cranes to reduce back strain.

Analyzing the varying degree of physical strain workers experienced, management also set shift limits on the most physically demanding actions. Workers could work in the most strenuous environments for a maximum of three hours per shift, rotating to less physically demanding work to reduce injury risk.

“BMW’s aging workers felt respected for their specific skills and capabilities,” wrote Sting, now a University of Cologne (Germany) professor and director of the Department of Supply Chain Management – Strategy and Innovation. “And they were asked to think about changing the line. It was this empowerment that led to the impressive results.”

Looking forward

In October 2015, NIOSH launched the Center for Productive Aging and Work as part of its Total Worker Health initiative. The center aims to create a developing research model that focuses on:

  • Work environment: Highlighting what workers can do to 
prevent injuries, as well as information on potentially adverse conditions and risks
  • Individual health: Asking which policies best promote health and maintain it over time, and determining which career-specific training would be best for a worker
  • Work organization: Determining how a job’s structure or design creates physical demands and what might be done to reduce them

Grosch said the center plans to evaluate existing workplace programs – including those at BMW – and summarize advice regarding what does and doesn’t work to assist employers and employees. It’s all part of NIOSH’s mission to help strengthen strategies for creating more age-friendly workplaces.

One plan revolves around job design and involves changing the content of work to better meet a worker’s abilities or needs. Another strategy – workplace flexibility – gives workers greater autonomy over how, when and where work is completed. This could include telecommuting or reduced or flexible hours.

“The center is new and developing, and we hope to do more in some of these areas,” Grosch said. “We fully expect to be developing programs and testing things. A lot of what’s out there right now is not completely evidence-based. It’s what people might think would be good and anecdotal. One of the things we see the need for is some kind of evaluation. There’s a lot of ideas and opinions, but it’s really nice to see how things work.”

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